MISS SAIGON?

Hunks of yellow margarine sizzle madly on a tabletop grill. Thin slices of red, rare beef stick to its surface and darken dramatically. From beneath the gas burner, smoke begins to billow. This potential 911 scene takes place at my table in #1 Restaurant, a new Vietnamese place in a small strip mall dominated by Vietnamese businesses at 35th Avenue and Indian School. What do I do? Yours truly, veteran diner, stands and waves her hand in the air. The staff members in the spacious, well-lighted restaurant do not see me.

"Excuse me?" I say loudly, waving. Well across the room, our hostess chats with some Vietnamese acquaintances. She does not appear to hear me. "Hey," I call. "Help!" I am only half-kidding. The flames under the grill leap higher. I do not know how to control them. It is clear I must go for assistance. While my dining accomplice stands at the ready with a glass of water, I trot across the linoleum floor to the table where our hostess sits. "We need help," I explain. She looks up, sees the smoke and hurries over. Expertly, she adjusts the flame. "The girl turned this too high," she scolds. The smoke abates as she pulls the charred meat off the grill with a pair of chopsticks. "Too high," she mutters again, then, "These are ready. You roll them in rice paper now with lettuce."

The labor-intensive dish we are enjoying is bo nuong vi. Earlier, when we request this traditional favorite by describing it, our hostess searches the menu. "I know the one you mean," she says. "You cook the beef, then wrap in rice paper, right?" She scans the menu with a long fingernail. "Hmmm," she ponders, "is it this one?"

Our hostess is having trouble, because the Vietnamese-Chinese menu at #1 Restaurant is nearly 200 items long. Not all dishes are translated into English. Which means if you're craving frog's legs (frozen, of course) ask for ech. Clam is ngheu. Eel is luon. Cua is crab. We do not try these. This is probably why they weren't translated to begin with; Americans, our hostess informs us, don't order the unknown.

She's close to being right.
On these initial tryouts at #1 Restaurant, I mostly stick with what I know--or think I know--on the menu. I am not disappointed. Many of the dishes I sample are very good. Pho tai, clear-broth sliced beef and rice-noodle soup, is delicately flavored with cilantro, green onion and Thai basil. Goi cuon, or fresh spring rolls, served with a peanut dipping sauce, are picture perfect: long, cylindrical rice-paper rolls of lettuce, noodle, shrimp and pork plumed with scallion. #1's cold rice vermicelli, shrimp and grilled pork salad (bun tom thit nuong), holds its own with any in the Valley. Even when I venture into uncharted terrain, the results are mostly positive. I like the banh cuon dac biet nem cha. In concept, it's similar to a bun dish, only with a change of noodle; these noodles are fat and resemble torn, wet rice paper. Other ingredients include mint, bean sprouts, cucumber, onion, an exotic mixture of papaya and meat and sliced pork sausage resembling white bologna.

Though I have always wanted to try mi kho soup, I probably would not order it here again. Curly egg noodles topped with shrimp, a pair of strange white meatballs and various vegetation come in one bowl. The soup's broth arrives in another. Interesting. Eat the broth and noodles together or separately--it's up to you. The noodles have a charming egg taste, but the so-called "meatballs" have the texture of organ meat. Two longtime favorites are slightly disappointing at #1 Restaurant. Cha gio (fried spring rolls) are overly greasy, though the leaf lettuce, mint and cilantro that come with them are fresh and attractive. Chicken with lemon grass, listed in the Chinese section of the menu, features hacked-up dark meat and lacks that pungent, spicy tang most of us associate with this dish.

There is plenty here to drink with your meal. I recommend the sweet, pink tropical fruit shake, or tart, fresh lemonade. My beloved filtered iced coffee with condensed milk, cafe sua da, is also available. #1's cup-sized French filters flow fine; I just wish I didn't experience an unpleasant soapy aftertaste when I finish my iced coffee. (What could it be? The ice? The condensed milk?)

The environment at #1 is upbeat and cheerful. Customers and staff are mostly Vietnamese. The restaurant is prettily decorated with maroon tablecloths and pink silk flowers. A color TV is embedded in one wall. Tables are stocked with all the necessary condiments: red vinegar, fish sauce, Sriracha, hoisin, soy sauce, red chile sauce. Just a few months after the restaurant's opening, however, the linoleum floor no longer shines and the plastic-coated menus look grungy. The new owners of this eatery should be more vigilant. Oversights like this give diners the distinct impression that maintenance is lax. As it stands, #1 Restaurant offers an alternative for adventurers seeking authentic Vietnamese cuisine. I know I'll be stopping in here for iced coffee, soup and more on a regular basis.

Under new ownership since last December, Hong's Restaurant is the perfect example of the small business everyone wants to see succeed. Whether you talk to owner Phat Pham and his wife in person or on the phone, your impression is the same. Here are intelligent, hardworking, positive people who want your business and want to know how to improve their product.

In fact, Phat Pham is more than friendly, he is engaging. On my first visit to Hong's since the changeover, the new owner comes to our table with two small photo albums. "Because this is your first time," Phat Pham says. "I want to introduce myself." He then proceeds to tell my dining accomplice and me an amazing story of survival, faith and persistence, with hazy brown-and-white photos to illustrate his tale.

Phat Pham has lived many lives. From South Vietnamese army officer to prisoner of war in North Vietnam, from boat person fighting off murderous sea pirates to refugee in Malaysia subsisting on the bounty of his own garden, from Tulsa, Oklahoma, restaurant worker to restaurant owner in Phoenix, this glowing man has faced more than his share of challenges. He tells a compelling story exemplifying the sheer will to live.

But compelling life stories do not make or break restaurants. Food, service and atmosphere do.

In terms of atmosphere, Hong's looks much the same as when it opened last year. It's a homey little place papered with flowers and hung with enameled decorations from the Orient. Phat Pham and his wife keep their restaurant neat as a pin. "We scrub everything when we take over," he tells us. Their hard work shows. The glass light structures sparkle, the brown booths and floor are clean. Service is good on the night we visit, but I wonder what happens during a busy lunch. Phat Pham and his wife cook and serve and ring the register. "When we get more busy," he says, "we hire someone to help us." Right now, that's not necessary. With the current level of traffic, the couple handles things pretty well.

After every food item is brought and sampled, Pham is there asking us what we think. "We work in Vietnamese restaurant in Tulsa for fourteen months," he explains. "They don't teach us anything, but we watch very close and learn. We pay attention to everything. Please let us know how we can improve." Little does he know that that is my job.

And so, this is what I would say about the food. At present, Hong's is trying too hard to be palatable to what Pham, his wife, and probably the people who ran that Tulsa restaurant think Americans like to eat--since we are told Hong's menu replicates the other establishment's. Vietnamese dishes are few and far between. Instead, the menu is littered with Americanized Chinese offerings like fried rice, sweet and sour, chow mein--even chop suey.

This isn't to say the food is bad. It's just more like Vietnamese food you'd get at the food court in the mall than what you'll find at #1 Restaurant or Da Vang, or even Lien's Tu Do.

Many dishes have been adapted or reinterpreted in some way. Pham laughs when he tells us an appetizer called "lumpia dogs" are not made from dog, but from hot dogs. He adds seriously, "In my family, we never ate dog." The fried Vietnamese pigs-in-blanket are served like Chinese egg rolls with two tiny dishes of dipping sauce: nuoc cham, the traditional clear, spicy Vietnamese fish sauce; and a yellow pineapple sauce. Lumpia dogs are tasty enough, but, well, odd. "The children like these," says Pham. Fresh spring rolls are correct in principle, but bland.

Yet, Hong's shows potential during the soup course. "Vietnamese special soup" turns out to be a hearty-broth version of pho tai, or beef and rice-noodle soup. Deluxe bun cha gio is also one of the better choices here. As prepared at Hong's, it's like a Vietnamese Cobb salad. Rows of beef, chicken, shrimp, bordered by chopped egg roll and fried shrimp-potatoes, are laid atop a layer of lettuce and cucumber over cold rice vermicelli. The salad has already been dressed with nuoc cham, but more can be requested. Toss with your chopsticks or fork and eat.

But these, I'm afraid, are the highlights of the meal.
I am disappointed with a very ordinary vegetarian chow mein featuring a scattering of fried Chung King-like noodles. I am also surprised when the lemon-grass chicken arrives with deep-fried nuggets of lemon chicken in it and way too many vegetables. Yes, the food is only mediocre, but Phat Pham and his wife are trying so hard. The atmosphere is so friendly, so pleasant.

What may save this little restaurant is location. In terms of restaurants, there's not too much ethnic diversity in this northwest Phoenix neighborhood. This may work in Hong's favor. If recipes like these worked in Tulsa, maybe they'll succeed at Bell Road and 43rd Avenue. Who knows?

In the meantime, Phat Pham and his wife owe it to themselves to visit Da Vang, #1 Restaurant, or even Pho Dong Phuong in Scottsdale to see what the competition is doing. They might learn something. As Phat Pham himself might say: With hard work, anything is possible.

#1 Restaurant, 4141 North 35th Avenue, Suite #12, Phoenix, 246-0344. Hours: 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week.

Hong's Restaurant, 4349 West Bell Road, Phoenix, 439-5025. Hours: 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., Monday through Friday; 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday and Sunday.

#1 restaurant

The flames under the grill leap higher. I do not know how to control them. My dining accomplice stands at the ready with a glass of water.

Even when I venture into uncharted terrain, the results are mostly positive.

hong's

Yes, the food is only mediocre, but Phat Pham and his wife are trying so hard. The atmosphere is so friendly, so pleasant.

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